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Bloomingdale library rape trial gets a jury

Kendrick Morris, accused of brutally raping a teen outside the Bloomingdale library in April 2008, is scheduled to go on trial today.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

Kendrick Morris, accused of brutally raping a teen outside the Bloomingdale library in April 2008, is scheduled to go on trial today.

TAMPA — Bloomingdale library rape suspect Kendrick Morris got his first look Tuesday at the jury that will decide his fate:

Four women. Two young men.

Blank slates amid a 100-person pool mostly tainted by knowledge of the case.

Jury selection was long and grueling. It ran late for two days straight, question after question about news habits and exposure to one of Tampa Bay's most horrendous crime stories.

An 18-year-old East Bay High School student was dropping off books at the Bloomingdale Regional Library the night of April 24, 2008, when her friend, through a cell phone, heard her scream.

She was discovered naked, raped and severely battered, with no memory of the moment that changed her life.

The image stuck in the heads of potential jurors. Some remembered her wheelchair. At least one had participated in a fundraiser for her medical care — a constant need for a young woman rendered unable to see, speak or hold her head upright.

Not as many of the potential jurors recognized the slender young man sitting at the defense table wearing a tie and eyeglasses, sitting attentively over a notepad. Some initially thought Morris, 19, was a law student. One said he was handsome.

But some knew he was a convicted rapist, facing his second trial in a month. They remembered the 62-year-old day care worker raped in 2007, and DNA evidence linking him to both attacks.

On Monday, after reviewing surveys about media exposure, lawyers quarantined a "tainted pool" of 71 in one courtroom and focused on the nonexposed 29 in another. They answered questions until 6:30 p.m., when a judge let them go home.

On Tuesday, all remaining potential jurors — both tainted and nontainted — returned to their separate courtrooms.

In the "tainted" one, potential jurors waited all day without being questioned.

In the other, attorneys were hoping they would find all the jurors they needed, plus alternates. The podium was dominated by Assistant Public Defender Rocky Brancato, who filed a motion this summer asking the judge to move the trial out of Tampa, saying it would be impossible to seat an impartial local jury for his client.

Over and over, he asked potential jurors if they had been exposed.

"Is it possible," Brancato asked one, "that deep in the depths of your subconscious you know something about this case?"

Once it came time to pick, the defense used all of its allotted strikes to get rid of potential jurors. With prosecutors, they agreed on six, but were left with just one remaining pool member, whom Brancato said he had problems with.

He asked Circuit Judge Chet A. Tharpe if they could just go to trial without alternates.

"You want to go two weeks without an alternate?" Judge Tharpe said. "We're not going to do that."

So they dipped into the tainted pool and forged ahead even after learning some of the people in that courtroom had been discussing the case. Brancato renewed his motion to move the trial, but Tharpe struck it down.

Finally, at 6:30 p.m., they found two alternates — a man who remembered a news story showing the victim in a wheelchair and a woman who initially said she might know about the case but later realized she didn't.

Some in the tainted pool had listened to music and chatted. Some had slept. Some had complained. "Thank you," Tharpe told them. He said the trial, scheduled to begin today, wouldn't be possible without them. Then, he invited questions.

A man raised his hand.

"Does that mean we can watch the news tonight?"

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Bloomingdale library rape trial gets a jury 09/28/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 29, 2010 12:45am]
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